Contributed by Brian Wallace
A man comes in and asks for Joe. The woman in the room says there is no such person. The man persists. She resists. He tries to rape her and she fights back. Stretch this out breath by breath for nine harrowing pages, and you have a quick outline of the opening action of Extremities, a 1978 play by William Mastrosimone now being revived in 2018 Los Angeles by the Dynamo Studio, a new theatre company in Los Angeles.
It’s a sequence of events that must be as difficult to stage as it could be to watch. The production cautions that the opening scene may be triggering for some. And that’s where director Tina Alexis Allen comes in.
She also comes in wearing a sleeve of a red dress, a garment she brandishes like a uniform as she makes the rounds promoting the play alongside her new autobiography,Hiding Out: A Memoir of Drugs, Deception, and Double Lives. Allen, a GLAAD nominated actress noted for her work in WGN’s Outsiders, has shared her story with everyone from Megyn Kelly to me.
Allen is easy to talk to and doesn’t get squeamish about the questions. A veteran of television and solo shows, this is her debut as a director of a full play.
It’s not her first experience with Extremities, however. The main role of Marjorie is a chestnut for actresses in scene study classes. Years ago, she was assigned the part by a teacher who let the scene get out of hand, and she felt her safety was compromised. The experience remains imprinted on her mind to the degree that when she took on this job, she insisted that the physical and emotional safety of her actors would take first priority. They have even rehearsed with a safe word.
Beyond that, Allen’s own life story, as described in her book, is upsetting and rivals anything in the play. That’s one reason she feels uniquely suited to the project.
“It gives me a different perspective than other directors, and it also made me not shy away from any of it.”
She’s dealt with these issues firsthand, and has also healed from them. Without the healing, she says, she doubts she’d have been a good choice for the project.
The production doesn’t seek to bash anything or anyone, she says, but has a duty to find the humanity in everyone.
“I’m a person who really comes at all of my work from a place of transformation. Of taking something that looks on the surface ugly or painful or traumatic, and then turning it on its head.”
This includes the lone male character who attempts the rape.
“He’s a three-dimensional human being, so we have to see colors. We have to see the guy may not be showing his heart, but he has one.”
Dynamo Studio is a female-driven company, formed in the wake of the post-Weinstein #TimesUp era. There is no spoiler in revealing that the character of Marjorie subdues her attacker.
Indeed, that is what the play is about. Mastrosimone wrote the first scene as a cathartic exercise for a rape survivor he knew. I ask Allen if it’s ironic that the play was written by a man, and 40 years ago at that.
“Clearly he was incredibly moved by this woman’s story that he based it on. If you’re a human being with a heart, you would be moved by it. I think he felt it, and that’s all that matters. I love that a man in 1978 listened to a story by a woman and was so moved that he wrote a whole play to address an issue that wasn’t talked about the way it is now.”
Mastrosimone’s friend had anguished over whether she could have turned the tables on her attacker. So the writer allows his main character to do just that. The rest of Extremities explores the question of whether she can go too far.
The play mirrors a lot of issues that have defined the last couple of years: mistrust of the police, victim-shaming, gradations of abuse, social priorities, and the moral failings of those in charge of the system. And of course, violence, which the script prescribes in abundance, peppered with graphic language. The audience witnesses what this man has tried to do. But the questions still hang there. Does he deserve mercy? Should Marjorie be tempered? Is it the business of anyone who wasn’t there? And what do our answers to these questions say about us?
Perhaps most importantly, given the impetus for reviving the play, are we allowed to question the #MeToo movement itself? Can it go too far?
“I want #MeToo to move forward too. We shouldn’t stay stuck in the anger. Anger is just one phase of healing. But it’s a legitimate phase, and women need their time. And men do too, who have been hurt,” she says, citing the Kevin Spacey scandal as a reason to bring men into the conversation. “Any kind of abuse is universal. If it happened to you, your childhood was arrested, you were arrested, and you have every right to speak out and be part of something.”
Extremities poses another challenge for a new company, a glaring one in the light of 2018 Los Angeles. The rapist is named Raul and uses words like “puta.” Feel free to conecta los puntos. The other characters are played by white women. One of Allen’s tasks as director was to retain the relevance of an older play for a new generation. That was easy enough to do as far as hashtags go, but there was the danger of standing up for one community by smearing another.
“I’m all for diverse casting, believe me,” she says, but when split families and border walls are being discussed as public policy, she feared that by staying true to the author’s apparent intent and, “hav[ing] a Mexican or Hispanic Raul, the message that [the company] is trying to put into the world would possibly be misconstrued.” She did discuss, however, an ambition to stage the production in New York with a multi-ethnic cast of women.
One thing that unites most of the characters, Allen contends, is a Catholic upbringing. Her memoir makes her an expert on this, having grown up with a dozen siblings under a strict father who had business ties to the Vatican. As Allen tells it, this masked a veritable walk-in closet of skeletons that included double lives, repression, and sexual abuse, which began for her at the age of nine. As she continued to explore Extremities, she was convinced that she had more in common with the roles than just what was on the page.
Raul, she is convinced, was abused within the Church in some way, Marjorie is a recovering Catholic, and Terry, a roommate, she believes went to school in the little uniform.
“When you mix power and secrets, things become combustible. Gas on fire. I think the Church has been a culture of secrecy since [it] started. The fact that the people who say that children are the most valuable cover up [sexual abuse] in order to protect their image and power and money, is a real sickness. It’s a shame-based religion.”
Despite her experience, Allen maintains that while no longer a Catholic, she unreservedly remains a person of faith. Perhaps this explains why she holds out hope that the characters in Extremities are not shut off from restoration and redemption regardless of the darkness and depravity on display.
“Human beings who have been hurt, hurt back” she says. “This cyclical thing that happened to me, I can trace back into those perpetrators’ lives, and I think that also gives me a level of compassion to bring to this story.”
One of the worst things about abuse is not being believed, a notion the play touches on more than once. It hits home for Allen, as a contingent of her family has decried and refuted her book.
“The light finds people when they’re ready,” she says in response. She advises that finding a network of support is vital for anyone recovering from abuse. “Even if you don’t get the love from your family, there are plenty of people out there who have walked your walk. If you find your tribe—in or out of your family—that’s the way to move forward.”
Ever true to the power of healing, she foresees all the characters going in positive directions by play’s end. If she were to write the sequel, the women would return, stronger and validated by a shared experience.
“And I think somebody might be so bold as to maybe send Raul a letter in jail. And try to convince him to get some therapy!”
Extremities runs until August 19 at New Collective, 6440 Santa Monica Blvd, in Los Angeles.
For tickets and information, visit www.dynamo-studio.com.
Hiding Out: A Memoir of Drugs, Deception, and Double Lives is published by HarperCollins.